movie film review | chris tookey

Eden Lake

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  Eden Lake Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
6.15 /10
Kelly Reilly , Michael Fassbender, Jack O'Connell
Full Cast >

Directed by: James Watkins
Written by: James Watkins

Released: 2008
Origin: UK
Length: 91

At last! Here’s a really first-rate British horror film, that taps into our deepest fears and offers a thought-provoking insight into such topical subjects as knife crime and gang culture.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Though nightmarish and visceral, it’s easily the most intelligent horror film to have been made by a British director since Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, way back in 1960. And it fulfils the two basic purposes of horror films: it involves you emotionally, and it’s frightening.

One of our finest young actresses, Kelly Reilly (pictured), plays Jenny, a primary school teacher first seen playing peek-a-boo with her small, charmingly innocent pupils. She’s as pretty, defiantly English and child-friendly as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. She goes off camping for the weekend with boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender), little knowing that he is about to propose marriage and get seriously in tents.

Ominous portents abound: a woman slaps her child in a supermarket, rude cyclists casually ride through a red light, causing Steve’s Jeep to brake, and an advertising hoarding announces that Steve’s favourite lake is to be redeveloped into a “gated community”.

“Who are they so afraid of?” asks Jenny, with the blitheness of someone probably recruited for her job through the pages of the Guardian. She’s about to find out, and a strong hint is afforded by the obscene, unpunctuated graffiti on the back of the billboard, which read “F*** off yuppy c***s”.
Jenny and Steve laugh as they leave the road and receive an menacing message from the bossy girl’s voice on their sat nav: “At your first opportunity, turn around.”

They swim, sunbathe and enjoy the peace of the lake, which is really a man-made quarry. But their idyll is spoiled by teenagers aged between 12 and 16. They are playing their music loud and failing to control their Rottweiler. Jenny wants to amove on. “Boys will be boys” she says, not noticing that one of the gang is a girl.

Steve is all for approaching the group and believes they’ll see reason. When Jenny says “No, Steve, it’s not worth it”, he replies “If everyone said that, where would we be?”

It’s a thoroughly credible set-up, and the process of escalation whereby Jenny and Steve alienate, then anger these feral youths until they’re ready to stab, torture and even burn them to death is worryingly authentic too.

Unlike most horror films, in which the heroes steer themselves into danger by their own stupidity, Eden Lake has Jenny and Steve behave with complete plausibility and a tragically unrequited sense of kindness and social responsibility.

Be warned that events turn extremely gruesome. Some of it even I, desensitised as I have been by many hours of watching big-screen violence, found hard to watch. But for once the violence has a point, and it’s treated responsibly.

Never has knife crime been less glamorised. We watch someone bleeding to death from stab wounds, and it’s a shocking sight. And there’s darkly comic horror to be experienced as we watch the ringleader’s girlfriend impassively recording acts of extreme violence on her cellphone.

We even see the horrifying effects on Jenny, as she’s transformed from a nice young teacher into… well, I’ll leave you to find out. Unlike the torture porn it superficially resembles, it makes sure our sympathies are always with the victims.

The film delivers plenty of tension and vicarious excitement. But it’s also willing to say what other films have been too scared or politically correct to mention: that the true horrors we fear from day to day are not supernatural bogeymen, or monsters created by scientists. They’re our own youth.

Eden Lake will doubtless be accused of class hatred, and demonising chavs, especially by those who accuse newspapers such as the Daily Mail of “whipping up” public concern over innocent victims of street-gangs.

The obvious point never seems to occur to these people, that we are right to feel concerned about, say, the stabbing of headmaster Philip Lawrence outside his own school gates in 1995, or the way the murderers of Stephen Lawrence are still walking free. We wouldn’t be fully human if we weren’t.

And it’s made abundantly clear within the film that the guilty youths are often the offspring of parents who have jobs and might reasonably be called middle class, but who have lost their moral compass and any feelings of responsibility towards their kids.

Far from demonising the gang-members, there’s an underlying compassion towards them, along with a sad realism about mankind’s potential for barbarism. It’s the same feeling that made a classic of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The film is remarkably strong on the dynamics of the gang, with its psychotic leader (played by Jack O’Connell as a variation on Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) bullying, manipulating and incriminating his less daring colleagues until they become as vicious as he is. You can see from his attachment to his dog Bonnie that hers is the only love he has in his life – and wait until you meet his parents.

Uncaring or absentee parents are the true villains of the picture, mostly unseen until a truly unpleasant end, but an implied presence throughout.
There’s a world of pathos in the reply of a young boy whom Jenny meets in the woods and asks “Where’s your mother?” (obviously considering it’s safest to assume he has no father), whereupon he answers sadly “She’s working”.

Time will tell whether first-time writer-director James Watkins is a major new talent or just a flash in the pan. Either way, he has made a terrific directorial debut.

Even though the picture was shot in only six weeks on an obviously limited budget, I was much taken with cinematographer Chris Ross’s use of backlighting at the start, when our couple seems to be embarking on an idyllic holiday, and his shift to harsher, less flattering light and hand-held camerawork as things go wrong.

Eden Lake may sound like yet another story about nice people straying into hostile territory – like Straw Dogs, Deliverance or the recent Timber Falls - but it has five virtues you don’t often see in horror films: believability, leading characters you care about, a responsible attitude towards violence, a willingness to get inside the heads of the “bad guys”, and a recognition that aggression may brutalise even the victim.

A sixth virtue is that it doesn’t fight shy of a truly frightening final twist, which makes Eden Lake not only bleaker but also more truthful than virtually every other movie in this genre, which all too often is over-populated and under-humanised.

“I once lived near a housing estate. And I’d walk from the subway through an underpass where kids always hung around. I found it rather creepy. But was my fear founded in any threat reality, or just a projection based on current tabloid headlines about out-of-control youth? [The UK has seen a rash of teenage gang killings and violent abuse toward intervening adults.] Here was a horror movie being played out daily on our streets in every town, so I thought a chiller about feral kids was apt. I’m not making a social realist drama — it’s a genre piece — but I wanted a resonance and intelligence above the exciting thriller norm.”

(James Watkins)

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